An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Bread and Circuses

A sermon on John 6:24-35 & 2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:13a by Nathan Nettleton

The crassness of the war in the Middle East, and the self-interested posturing of many world leaders over it continue to horrify us as we open our daily newspapers or flick on the news broadcasts. The Israeli government openly says that it expects the world community to allow it the time it needs to do the job it wants to do on Hezbollah, and the gathered world leaders seem intent on doing exactly that while still being seen to be involved in peace discussions. And meanwhile, both Israel and Hezbollah seem to have no compunction at all about sacrificing hundreds of ordinary Lebanese people – women, men and children – in expressing their murderous rage against one another. Just as sixty one years ago today, our allies, the United States of America, had no compunction about sacrificing a quarter of a million ordinary civilians in Hiroshima.

Perhaps some of you, like me, recognised a similarity between your feelings of horror over these atrocities, and the feeling evoked by our readings from the story of King David this week and last. The crassness of David’s abuse of his power to murder the man whose wife he had adulterously taken for himself was also pretty horrifying. The scale might be very different, but in both cases we have power mongers wheeling and dealing to shore up their own interests and only too ready to sacrifice the lives of expendable innocent people in the process. It’s obscene and nauseating. And it has been going on for thousands of years.

Let me take what I am sure will seem like a bizarre change of tack. Consider for a moment a very different kind of spectacle that is served up by the media to a hungry public: the constant fascination with celebrities and their private lives. Are Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban trying to get pregnant already? Is Paris Hilton getting back together with her ex, and does that means she’s broken her pledge to give up sex for a year? Is Mel Gibson going into detox and rehab, and is he really a rabid anti-Semite? Is Paul McCartney really divorcing his wife? Does Chris Tarrant party too hard to sustain his form as a footballer, and did he really get into a fight in a nightclub?

Why are we so fascinated by such news, and even rumours and gossip of such news? Why is there such a fascination that whole magazines can be devoted to such things and sell in their hundreds of thousands? And why is it that, even after tragedies such as the death of Princess Diana warn us that lives are literally being sacrificed to our invasive fascination, our hunger for news, rumours and gossip goes on consuming them?

And by now, I would think you are wondering what on earth I am doing, talking about both the hard news of war and politics, and the utter trivialities of celebrity gossip. If you are, I don’t blame you. But let me take you to tonight’s story of Jesus, and show you how I think he brings these things together and brings forth a vital message from them.

Our gospel readings, starting last week and for the next few Sundays, takes us out of Mark’s gospel and into the sixth chapter of John’s gospel. We diverted from Mark’s gospel at the point where the story of the feeding of the five thousand came, and last week we jumped to John’s version instead, and now we begin to explore the more detailed follow up on that story that John provides us with. Mark’s narrative just moves on to the next story, but in John, Jesus has a lot to say about bread, and the expectations of the people, and the nature of his gift of himself to us as the bread of life. I am not entirely going to confine my reflections here to tonight’s extract; I’ll be drawing a bit on the whole chapter.

Last week we heard how Jesus satisfied the hunger of five thousand people with just a few bread rolls and a couple of fish, and then when he realised they were about to grab him and proclaim him king, he slipped off and went bush. He even walks across the lake in his efforts to get beyond their reach, but tonight we heard that they quickly tracked him down again. Sometimes it seems that Jesus is intent of offending everyone, and in this chapter of John’s gospel, he is at his most obviously offensive. First up here, he accuses the crowd of having no real interest in what he is on about, they are just following him because he gave them a free feed. You can imagine how we’d feel if Jesus walked in here and said, “I don’t reckon any of you are really fair dinkum about being my disciples. You just turn up here each Sunday to chat with your friends and get the free soup.”

Well, offended or not, they do ask him how they should do what God wants of them, but look what they follow up with when he gives them an answer. “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ” The gospel writer is really working the irony here. This is the same mob he has just fed in the wilderness, and they begin asking for a sign like the feeding in the wilderness from the days of Moses! Yesterday they were so blown away they were ready to proclaim him king. Today they are already bored and wanting more signs!

Jesus is realising that they are turning him into a celebrity and beginning to feed on him. And like all celebrities, they are demanding that he keep performing for the cameras, and producing an endless stream of newsworthy moments. They want royalty. They want showbiz. They want bread and circuses. And so Jesus begins to unmask the almost cannibalistic nature of this feeding frenzy that is developing around him. He begins by naming himself as the bread that they are to feed on, but as the chapter progresses he gets more and more shocking and offensive in the language that he uses. Soon he is talking about people eating his flesh and drinking his blood, and the gospel writer even switches from the normal Greek word for “eating” to a word that evokes images like an animal chewing a bone. “Those who chew up my flesh and swallow me and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” It is grotesque, and deliberately so. Jesus is unmasking something truly ugly about the human race. About us. We consume our own. We may not literally eat human flesh, but we participate in lifestyles and cultures that systematically sacrifice other people’s lives to sate our appetites.

In the end, the cannibalistic hunger to invade the lives of celebrities and consume every juicy morsel of gossip is of the same order of human behaviour as the willingness to bomb civilians to prove a point, or to use human shields in the perpetration of bloodthirsty vengeance. All show a callous disregard for the humanity of other people. All show a willingness to participate in sacrificing the dignity and integrity and even the lives of other people in order to advance our own interests or amusements. And of course, you might want to say that surely celebrities participate in and benefit from their own exploitation, but isn’t that so often the case in the way our society sacrifices its victims? The presence of willing martyrs in the Middle East is a cooperation with their own victimisation too. And the Christian Church has often been guilty of promulgating ideologies that encourage people to cooperate with their own sacrifice. Women have often been taught to imagine themselves as performing an admirable Christlike self-sacrifice when they put up with abusive and exploitative husbands, but really we were simply sacrificing them to shore up the men’s interests, and we have duped them into cooperating with it. And Jesus unmasks the ugliness of it all and holds up a mirror so we can see ourselves for who we really are; all of us little better than the paparazzi or the Israeli military or the Hezbollah guerillas or those who ordered the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the architects of the Australian Immigration Department’s Designated Unauthorised Arrivals legislation. And the gospel writer leaves us nowhere to hide because by the end of this chapter the crowd deserts him, grossed out and offended by his suggestions of their cannibalism, but when the crowd reassembles at the end of the gospel story, it is truly ready to devour him and demand that he be sacrificed to keep them happy. And the crowd is us. All of us.

But Jesus is not only unmasking us here. He is also doing something extraordinary, something staggeringly generous, something almost beyond our imagining and our comprehension. He is taking our sacrifice of him — our cannibalising of him —and turning it into the source of our salvation from our own descent into chaotic violence and annihilation. Jesus surrenders himself to our victimising of him, but he never cooperates with it. He never validates our repressed belief that it is okay to sacrifice the innocent to shore up the favour of the biggest military power on earth, or to shore up our borders, or our own food supply or oil supply or entertainment. But he surrenders himself to the naked violence of that system, and is sacrificed by us, and the crassness and horror of it all are laid bare for all to see.

But suddenly and astonishingly, it is all transformed. The sacrificed victim is not silent. The tomb is empty and the victim lives again. He comes back to us, simultaneously both the sacrificed victim and the glorious Lord of life. Still he does not validate or cooperate with our sacrificing, but neither does he come seeking vengeance for his suffering. He comes offering his own suffering as the means of our healing. He comes offering his own sacrificed body as the true food and true drink that can satisfy our deepest hungers: the bread of heaven which we can consume and never hunger or thirst again. Instead of condemning our devouring of him, ugly though it was, he redeems it, and makes it the means of our bodily participation in the life of God. He call us to turn from our cannibalising of one another, and instead to consume only him who offers himself to us so that we might be transformed into his bodily presence in and for the world. Though our feeding on him began as darkly as any other human violence, he redeems it so that it becomes the gateway to divine communion and the birthplace of a new culture of mercy and justice and peace. As the perfect and ultimate victim of our sacrificing, he comes back offering the perfect and ultimate forgiveness; the gratuitous mercy that sets us free and heals us of our violent and cannibalistic ways.

And so we find ourselves gathered around this table, and confronted again with the paradox of what we say and do here each week. Our words and actions here are both grotesque and joyous, chilling and heart-warming. For on the one hand, each time we break bread and pour wine here, we are reminded of the ugliness of the sacrificing that we recall and of our complicity in it. We are reminded of the harsh reality that it is us who cannibalised him, that it is us who made him a celebrity and then devoured him, that it is us who sacrifice him to appease the super powers who hold sway over our world. We cannot witness the breaking of bread at this table and hide from that. But we are confronted even more with the outrageous generosity of the one who surrenders himself to us and gives himself to us as the bread of heaven that we might know ourselves beloved and that we might live forever, freed and forgiven and nourished for fullness of life.

And so here we find ourselves present at a miracle even more astonishing than the feeding of the five thousand in the wilderness. Here find ourselves in the presence of the broken victim, who gathers up in his own love all the broken victims who have been sacrificed in Lebanon and Israel and Darfur and Hiroshima and New York City and the pages of Who Weekly and all the countless wars and lynchings and abuses and atrocities down through the ages, and who in his one broken body becomes the bread of heaven which is broken and offered to us, more than enough to satisfy the deepest hungers and hopes of not just five thousand, but of all six billion people on this planet. Our longing for healing, and our hunger for justice, and our thirst for peace all come together here, and we feed deeply and carry this life out into the places where death still reigns and deliver to our still-cannibalising brothers and sisters their invitation to the banquet of eternal love and life.


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